At 3,650 meters above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. We hoped to avoid the altitude sickness by planning our itinerary through Peru and Bolivia gradually changing elevations to give ourselves time to acclimatise. Despite our best efforts, we still suffered from mild headache and dizziness.
Fortunately we had nothing planned that first evening. We decided to put on hold our daily pisco sour ritual and replace it with some of hotel’s complementary coca tea. For centuries, people of the Andes have used Coca leaves as a stimulant to overcome fatigue and provide energy at high altitude. It is also considered sacred medicine within indigenous communities. Traditionally, the dried leaves are either chewed or prepared as a tea. The cocaine-free extract of coca leaf is also one of the flavouring ingredients in Coca-Cola. We tried chewing it in Peru but it tasted nothing like the famous drink and felt gritty between the teeth so we continued with the tea.
In the morning our guide Cynthia met us at the hotel lobby, where we talked about our plans. She was very flexible and we clicked instantly. The city felt hectic. In a short time we passed several demonstrations. Then, at a busy intersection we were assisted by a dancing zebra. The ‘Cebritas’ are ordinary citizens dressed in full zebra suits, who playfully encourage drivers to follow traffic rules and help pedestrians safely cross the street.
A short walk from the beautiful basilica of San Francisco is El Mercado de Las Brujas de La Paz (Witches Market) . This must be one of the most peculiar places I have ever visited. A narrow allay of overstuffed stalls packed with all sorts of oddities; from amulets, aphrodisiacs and potions to owl feathers, dried frogs and turtles. The most creepy item of them all was dried llama foetus. I was told the foetuses are only used if born dead or after a miscarriage. Cynthia explained that lots of these objects are later used in rituals and are believed to bring luck, love and protection as well as solve fertility and money problems.
Next on the itinerary were the ruins of a powerful pre-Columbian civilisation Tiwanaku and spectacular rock formations of the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna). On the way back Cynthia was telling us about Pachamama, the goddess of the earth and fertility. As we were approaching the outskirts of La Paz, Cynthia pointed at the row of small huts. Here you can find Kallawaya, a traditional healer. Ever since I watched TV documentary series Tribe with Bruce Parry, I have been fascinated by the spiritual practices of indigenous people. Cynthia asked if we wanted to make an offering for Pachamama. We didn’t hesitate. The first 4 Kallawayas refused to serve “gringos” but an old man in the last hut agreed. He couldn’t speak any English, so Cynthia acted as translator. He asked few questions about us.
On a table in front of us he laid a sheet of paper on which he placed coca leaves, few tufts of wool, sugar tablets and a cigarette. He then sprinkled it with an alcohol of some sort and began chanting in Aymara language. At one point I thought I was getting hypnotised. We went outside the hut. The shaman took the paper with offering and placed it on a little fireplace. Still singing, he lit the fire and infused in the smoke two pieces of red string, which he then tied around our wrists. He blessed us by touching our foreheads and wished us good luck. It was the most surreal and moving experience.
The one thing that we didn’t get to do as we didn’t have enough time and courage, was visit what must be the world’s weirdest tourist attraction: San Pedro Prison. I learnt about it from the best-selling book ‘Marching Powder’, that tells the story of its former inmate, an Englishman Thomas Mcfadden. By bribing guards, Mcfadden managed to start a guided tour business, which at some stage even featured in the Lonely Planet guidebook.